Batang Toru power plant project hits snag as orangutan conflict worsens

Tapanuli orangutans are tree-bound and the power plant construction has forced the animals to intrude on nearby villages and farms, following the loss of forest in their habitat.

Vincent Fabian Thomas

Vincent Fabian Thomas

The Jakarta Post


Tentative existence: The Tapanuli orangutan is considered one of the rarest great apes in the world, with the fewer-than 800 remaining apes located in the region of Batang Toru, North Sumatra, south of Lake Toba.(Creative Commons/Tim Laman)

February 24, 2023

JAKARTAThe construction of a hydropower plant in Batang Toru district in South Tapanuli has caused global controversy for years as it is built in the habitat of the endangered Tapanuli orangutan. The Jakarta Post joined the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ) in December in a collaborative reporting project to visit the construction site and nearby villages to get the latest developments on the project. This is the final part of the report.    

Every harvest season, Asmar Simanjuntak has no choice but to live in a shack inside a durian farm for three months, leaving his family in Bulu Mario village in South Tapanuli regency, North Sumatra.

If he did not stay on guard at the farm, orangutans would harm the durian trees under his care by tearing their branches to make nests and eating away at the fruit. Once it cost him half of his harvest, a significant loss for Asmar. Other commodities grown by residents like palm sugar, bitter beans and dog fruit have also met a similar fate.

Asmar said intrusions by orangutans had intensified ever since the construction of the Batang Toru hydropower plant, located about 17 kilometers from the village, began in 2017.

The construction site sits inside the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), an endangered species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the world’s rarest great ape.

Tapanuli orangutans are tree-bound and the power plant construction has forced the animals to intrude on nearby villages and farms, following the loss of forest in their habitat.

Read also: Poor planning causes PLN to pay more for Batang Toru hydropower plant

Residents used to scare them off using homemade cannon-like firecrackers, but this is no longer effective as they soon return. Previously, it took days for orangutans to come back after a firecracker attack.

“It has inflicted losses on our livelihoods,” Asmar told The Jakarta Post when a group of journalists visited the village in December.

Residents in other villages like Batu Satail also grow anxious over orangutans appearing more frequently on their farms since the beginning of dam construction for the power plant, and have asked for help from the local natural resources conservation agencies to relocate the orangutans on several occasions.

They have also had to deal with increased intrusions from monkeys that ransack the residents’ small-scale plantations and crops.

“Prior to the dam construction, they lived far away inside the rainforest,” said Parlindungan, a Batu Satail resident.

An aerial view of the Batang Toru River taken in Batang Toru district, South Tapanuli regency. ( Bhawono)


Loud blasts

The Batang Toru hydropower plant is a project developed by PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE), more than 70 percent of which is owned by the Chinese-owned State Development and Investment Corporation’s (SDIC) subsidiary SDIC Power.

State-owned electricity monopoly PT PLN contributes to the project with ownership of about 25 percent of NSHE through its subsidiary PT Pembangkitan Jawa Bali Investasi (PJBI).

The Batang Toru power plant, which is designed to have the production capacity of 510 megawatts of electricity, was initially targeted to be operational in July 2022, but global protests over the loss of the orangutan habitat and financial constraints have delayed the progress of the project.

As of October 2020, NSHE had only completed around 11 percent of the construction, from the targeted 78.98 percent. The company and PLN agreed to push back its operation to December 2026.

Read also: China’s big firms put reputation at risk in Batang Toru power plant

The construction site spans three districts in South Tapanuli, namely Sipirok, Marancar and Batang Toru (Simarboru). These areas are known to be part of the habitat of the endangered Tapanuli orangutan.

Residents around the construction site have also grown weary of loud blasts from the explosives used by the company to build underground tunnels and mining operations in the mountains to collect material for the dam construction.

“What would you do if I end up deaf?” asked Parsaulian Simanjuntak, a resident of Batang Paya village recalling a quarrel he had with the company. He said he had an elderly relative living with him who could not stand the loud noises.

Moreover, large rock fragments once landed in Parsaulian’s crops and banana trees, crushing some of his crops.

“[If these rocks landed on people], of course, they would die,” Parsaulian said, adding that he had tried asking for compensation from the company.

The blasts are also heard by Bulu Mario and Batu Satail residents. Those in Bulu Mario even feel the tremors caused by the explosions.

TA timelapse showing forest opening caused by business activities in the Batang Toru ecosystem, especially the Batang Toru hydropower project. (Auriga Nusantara/Research)

Fragmentation and extinction

It is estimated that there are fewer than 800 Tapanuli orangutans living in the Batang Toru ecosystem, which comprises the east and west blocks of the ecosystem and Sibualbuali. According to several studies, the west Batang Toru block hosts roughly 75 percent of the total population and part of the land is the area where the Batang Toru dam is currently being constructed.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) has compiled and analyzed several studies and found that a high density of the orangutan population is found around the project, amounting to between 26 and 57 percent more density than in other areas.

Onrizal, an associate professor of ecology and conservation of tropical forests at North Sumatra University (USU) told the Post that the dam construction would divide the orangutan habitat in the ecosystem’s west block into two and would lead to fragmentation, causing individual orangutans in the group to become separated and putting the species at risk of extinction.

He further explained that Tapanuli orangutans only lived on the tops of trees and they traversed from one branch to another, in what scientists refer to as the canopy. They will not come down unless forced to do so, resulting in the high probability of being isolated in the event of many trees around them being cut down.

Fragmentation will reduce the chance of the orangutans’ survival, as it would limit their food supply and potentially lead to inbreeding, which would leave them prone to diseases, he said.

“The orangutan population was [already] prone [to diseases] and already declining. It will continue that way unless the areas are reconnected again,” Onrizal said.

Erik Meijaard and Serge Wich, conservationists at the IUCN, wrote in 2020 that if adult Tapanuli orangutans decrease by more than 1 percent each year, then the species would likely go extinct in the foreseeable future.

A timelapse showing forest opening caused by business activities in the Batang Toru ecosystem, especially the Batang Toru hydropower project. (Auriga Nusantara/Research)

Dana Prima Tarigan, director of Medan-based environmental group Green Justice Indonesia, said it was likely orangutans were trying to avoid the project sites and therefore moving toward residents, particularly their plantations and crops, due to the fragmentation of their habitat.

“Orangutans do not like loud sounds and the blasts from the sites are likely intensifying their movement toward [residential areas],” he said.

Several NGOs have reported an increase in orangutan rescue requests filed by residents to keep them away from their crops and plantations, he said.

Local natural resources conservation agencies also frequently publish reports and photos on their social media related to this. However, a number of these encounters did not end up as rescue requests as a few orangutans were captured in the past, allegedly by outsiders, he said.

Responding to the findings by the group of journalists visiting Batang Toru, Didik Prasetyo, a lecturer at the National University and a former conservancy consultant working for NSHE, said that conflict between orangutans and residents had not increased.

“Orangutans eating durian or other crops planted by residents has happened for years, as it is normal for them to find the nearest source of food,” he said.

He added that the concerns of fragmentation due to the project construction were unfounded, arguing it was possible to reconnect some areas with an artificial canopy, made by cables that would allow orangutans to move around.

Didik also showed photos, which he claimed proved that orangutans used the artificial canopy.

Didik did not rule out the likelihood that the capture and poaching of orangutans and other animals like tigers was taking place caused by the power plant construction, admitting that the probability was high, but he said it was unlikely such activities were happening in the NSHE area.

The Chinese Embassy in Jakarta and NSHE did not respond to requests for comments.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya declined to comment on the issue when she was asked about the Batang Toru developments in a press briefing in December, saying the Batang Toru power plant project “is sensitive and has geopolitical risks.”

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